Ruben coaxes the veteran 4WD Mitsubishi van over the dirt and rock which has inundated this section of roadway; the vehicle crawls over the alluvium of earth spread before it. The state of the roads in this part of Colombia –Departamento Antioquia- isn’t so good, but at least it hasn’t rained in the past few days. Back on the hard surface, we rumble along, the sliding panel door open like a big-screen TV –one that I gawk at as the landscape unfolds at 45 km/hr.
The Rio Cauca cuts a fine figure through its verdant valley. Sediment filled, it’s substantial, with eddies and waves betraying boulders hidden beneath the undulating surface. Expansive gravel bars periodically extend from the shore. Above the vine-tangled banks the land rises gradually at first. The road we’re traveling is on a broad step above the river. Much of the land is relatively open, wild and uncultivated, but there is the occasional grove of orange trees or pasture.
Cottage-sized, black boulders –relics of volcanoes past- appear planted in the landscape at irregular intervals. As the land abruptly steepens above this step of rolling land, mans’ toil is evidenced by clinging coffee plants, the bushes arranged like patterns on fabric. Clumps of lean cattle graze on mountainsides that appear impossibly steep. Deep grey rain clouds shroud the higher peaks.
Earlier today, in the mountains upstream of here, we visited the small village of Damasco, a 400-year-old (!) town settled by the Spanish. “Wow, this place looks just like it did way back then,” I remarked as we rumbled down the dusty cobblestones. Ruben corrected me, “Ah, mi amigo, it was way busier then.”
The Spaniards discovered gold nearby, and this village was the center of the mining business for 100 years or so. In its lengthy passage to Spain, the gold was shipped from Damasco, down the Rio Cauca and its tributaries, on to the Caribbean settlement of Cartegena, and then home aboard galleons of the famed Spanish treasure fleet. Today Damasco is a sleepy place; men and women sit in the shade of doorways, a few children kick balls against the walls of stucco buildings, the gaily painted wood trim echoing the brightness of the turquoise sky overhead.
Our midday visit to La Pintada, a riverside town, is memorable not only for the replacement of a long-suffering front tire for a somewhat better retread, but also for particularly good Bandega paisas -hearty platters of local Colombian fare which includes eggs, beans, rice, and pita-like arepas. I show my appreciation to the cook with my smile and my meager espanol –they call the language “castellano” in this part of the world- and he laughs the laugh of a contented man.
Late afternoon, the sky has become quite overcast, and we roll into Bolombolo, another Cauca valley town. This one is characterized by lush green foliage of massive trees which overhang the main street and the scattered buildings along it. All of this shady green, coupled with the closed-in sky, makes the town seem especially cozy and welcoming.
Ruben wrenches the wheel abruptly –testing the new tire, eh?- and we pull up to a fruit stand for fresh pineapple and, especially, mangostino -our new favorite fruit. I walk off to stretch my legs and end up approaching a knot of enthusiastic kids behind a chain link fence of the local school yard. The children, about six to ten years old, are poor but neatly dressed in their khaki uniforms, and seem eager to meet me. I take some photos of their smiling faces and they shriek with delight as I show them the images on the scratched screen of my camera.
Moments later a teacher approaches, unlocks the gate, takes me by the hand and leads me into the school courtyard. Thirty kids surround me and they’re clapping and singing along to loud music playing through worn-out speakers. To the beat I start clapping and dancing myself and the kids go wild. A group of the youngsters pulls and pushes one of the teachers to me and we dance. She’s a good dancer; me, not so much. Before I pull away and return to the van (my mates are wondering what happened to me) I’ve danced with all the kids ‘till breathless, and I’m overwhelmed with the spirit of the experience. I am left speechless as I hop back into the van, the kids yelling and waving through the fence after me.
Later, we’re chugging through the mountains, leaving the Rio Cauca valley behind. The sun slips behind the pale green ridges to the west. It’s visible for a moment between the horizon and the blanket of clouds. Here, near the equator, the sun goes down fast; none of the sliding-obliquely-into-home-plate like it does most of the time in higher latitudes. As we head in twilight to our next destination, Medellin, “City of Eternal Spring,” I’m thinking about those kids back in Bolombolo, with their unbridled enthusiasm for life. They gave me such a great gift in welcoming, in the astonishing way that they did, this stranger into their midst.
It seems a timely reminder for us all, those kids in a village in central Colombia, in the valley of the Rio Cauca, embracing uncertainty with grace and optimistic hearts.
Too bad I can’t dance.